Former ETA head, blamed for airport bomb, dies in hospital

MADRID Sat Mar 30, 2013 2:18pm EDT

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MADRID (Reuters) - The former head of Basque separatist group ETA believed to have ordered the Madrid airport bombing that ended a truce in 2006 has died while serving a prison term in France, an ETA prisoner support group said on Saturday.

Xabier Lopez Pena, known by various aliases, including 'Thierry' and jailed in France since 2008, had a heart attack and later a stroke and died in the Paris hospital of Pitie-Salpetriere, Spanish media reported earlier on Saturday, citing sources close to the family and support groups.

Lopez Pena, 54, at the time considered the top leader of the separatist group, was arrested in May 2008 in Bordeaux, France.

Lopez Pena had participated in negotiations with the Spanish government during a truce called in 2006. But later that year an ETA car bomb attack at Madrid's airport, which killed two Ecuadorean immigrants sleeping in their cars, ended the talks.

Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), which means Basque Homeland and Freedom in Basque, is an independence movement dating back to the late 1950s. The group said in 2011 that it would give up its armed struggle, which has caused more than 800 deaths.

A spokesman for ETA prisoner support group Herrira said Lopez Pena died in the early hours of Saturday.

Lopez Pena had been at the Pitie-Salpetriere since March 13, after being first transferred to another hospital from the Fleury-Merogis prison on the outskirts of Paris, media said.

Spain's interior ministry could not be reached for comment on Saturday. France's interior and foreign ministries had no immediate comment and the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital could not be reached.

Earlier this week ETA warned, in a statement published by Basque newspaper Gara, of "negative consequences" after Norway deported a delegation working with international monitors.

The group said, however, it continued to work towards a "definitive resolution". Disarmament and treatment of ETA prisoners are key negotiation points yet to be resolved, while Spain's government insists ETA must formally disband.

(Reporting by Raquel Castillo in Madrid and Patrick Vignal in Paris; Writing by Sarah White; Editing by Jason Webb)

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